The Many Changes of the California State Flag Through the Years



The history of California state flags is an interesting one.

The first flag flown over California consisted of an all-white field with a lone red star in the center. It was raised by Juan Alvarado and Isaac Graham during a failed revolt against the Mexican government in 1836.

In June of 1846 a small group of American and Mexican “insurgents” living in the Mexican-owned territory of Alta California took control of the small town of Sonoma and raised a new flag. The flag was a field of white with a red stripe along the bottom edge, in the upper left (“hoist”) corner was a star and a grizzly bear. It was painted by William L. Todd on a piece of brown cotton and became known as “the Bear Flag” – even though most people at the time mistook the bear for a large pig.

The insurgency was thereafter referred to as “The Bear Flag Revolt” and the Republic of California was born.

The Bear Flag was officially adopted as the California state flag in 1911.

In the years between the first “bear flag” and the officially adopted version, several unofficial versions were created, all containing the three basic elements of the original: A lone star, a grizzly bear and at least one red stripe.

The Ide Flag, designed for William Ide, the first and only President of the California Republic, had the same elements, with the only difference being the bear stood on his hind legs.

Likewise, the Storm Flag depicted the bear in a standing position, however the color of the star was changed from red to blue and the red stripe along the bottom edge increased to half  the height of the flag.

The McChristian Flag placed the lone star on a white canton in the upper hoist corner and the bear in the lower fly corner. The rest of the field contained nine horizontal stripes of red, white and blue alternately.

Between 1911 and 1955 there were a great number of subtle variations on the Bear Flag due to the fact that there was no “official” standard for California state flags. In 1955 the image was standardized based on a watercolor image created by Charles Nahl in 1850.

According to California Gov. Code 420, the current and official California State Flag is “...white with a wide red strip along the bottom. There is a red star in the upper left corner and a grizzly bear facing left (toward the hoist) in the center, walking on a patch of green grass. The size of the bear is 2/3 the size of the hoist width and has a ratio of 2 by 1.”